It’s all fun and games until you accidentally cut the stupid neighbor boy’s throat with your brother’s katana. Such is the inciting event of Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times, a decently fun teen drama set in the mid ’90s that I was just ever-so-slightly disappointed by, in spite of all of the excellent work on display. It’s a brilliant coming-out party for Phillips, who has both a deft eye (even Derek Cianfrance in The Place Beyond the Pines couldn’t capture the beauty of the Hudson Valley area like this) and a deep heart, full of beautiful sympathy for his characters and their circumstances. For the most part, it resists the easy temptation of tainting nostalgia — so much of this could have been consumed by the ephemera that dominated the era, much like hits such Stranger Things or any number of the 80’s-influenced horror films that we’re subjected to every year — in order to focus on the excellent character work of its young leads.
Hell, for a while, it’s one of the most poetic and sad portraits of that kind of teenage connection in defiance of the all-encompassing loneliness of late adolescence, though all of that’s thrown out of the window for an empty and unfulfilling conclusion that ultimately rings false with all of the honesty that flows through the runtime.
Super Dark Times is an examination of the friendship between two somewhat-misfits who, before the accidental tragedy mentioned above, are just looking to play video games (Twisted Metal, no less) and talk about the girls they want to fuck in their mom’s basement. Zach (Owen Campbell) has it together for the most part, with a loving and concerned mom at home looking out for him, and he’s caught the eye of a local girl, Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino), who is several brackets above him in the popularity brackets. His ride-or-die homie, Josh (an excellent Charlie Tahan), is a bonafide misfit, who’s uncomfortable in nearly every situation he could possibly be in- he’s overtly sexually aggressive when talking about girls and laudatory towards his Marine brother, whose room he keeps like a sacred temple. One afternoon, while digging through his brother’s shit with Zach and an especially dumb friend named Daryl (Max Talisman), they find two things of extreme teenage boy interest: A bag full of weed and a large replica katana; dull enough not to be too dangerous, but sharp enough to cut through milk cartons. So they go out to the woods and cut up paper milk cartons, and Daryl tries to smoke Josh’s brother’s pot, which drives him nuts. Daryl grabs the katana and starts threatening Josh with it, and before you know it, the two are struggling on the ground for the sword, and Daryl gets the business end of it right to the throat. The boy runs into the woods and dies, and the group decides to cover up his death, but the secret eats at the two best friends and leads them down some dark paths.
Make no mistake, this is pretty standard fare, story-wise, for this particular genre of teen movie, though it’s difficult for me to remember an example that deals well enough with both the era and the age of the characters as well as this does for the most part, elevated highly by the talent both behind the camera and in front of it. There are shades of River’s Edge present here, but it’s never as emotionless about the predicament of its characters, and even after the grim twist that’s supposed to fuck with our understanding the first half of the film, Philipps goes to great pains to show how his characters are affected by their choices. Tahan is the best at this amongst the great cast, and he nearly makes the twist work, just on the virtue of his performance alone, but it still just doesn’t work well enough in its current state. It’s nearly two hours long already, and I just wished desperately that we could have had even more time with the characters so that we could better understand them going into the third act.
There’s enough here that still connects — the dissolution of Zach and Josh’s friendship with the guilt of what they’ve done and how they’ve handled it is potent and deeply moving for the most part, as is the effects of the trauma that they’ve both endured. It’s shown in a number of gorgeous character moments: Josh digging into his floorboards with a quarter as his friend bangs on the door trying to find him, Zach breaking his arm on a brick wall out of anger and frustration with himself and his situation.
Part of the blame for the third act can go directly at the feet of the writers, who figured that their script was getting long enough as it was, and decided to abandon the necessary work to convince us of the final revelations about Josh’s psyche. You can argue the psychology of the arc as much as you want, but it’s not necessarily dramatically satisfying to have someone’s character just shift so bluntly and easily as we’ve seen over the course of the film. Also, I think it might be a case of the film not knowing who should be the protagonist — Josh is a significantly more interesting character than Zach, whose wet-blanket everyman nature is, I guess, palatable for a large audience, but it’s done at the sacrifice of what could have been an intense exploration into the mind of the kind of person who acquires a taste for blood and loses himself to the fury of it all. Yet the tones are a mixture of muddled and exemplary, and it’s expertly directed and acted on a scene-by-scene basis, even if Super Dark Times can’t totally be the wonderful drama that it wants to be for the whole runtime.
Featured image via Fantastic Fest. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus for updates straight from Austin, and recap all our Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage here.